Fairly recently, we’ve talked about the perils and risks about hustle culture. Of how overwork isn’t only hazardous to one’s health — but also fatal to others. We’ve illustrated how millennial corporate culture seems to celebrate this unhealthy habit. But like with all things, there is some good takeaway here, and that is the concept of “deep work” which we’d like to tackle this time around.
What is deep work?
Let’s begin by defining the term. In the book “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World,” author Cal Newport, an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown defines deep work as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
While hustle culture is all about putting inordinate amounts of time and effort to complete tasks, deep work is more about the quality not only of whatever the final output is, but also the process it takes to get to that point. Deep work simply means focusing on completing a certain task (or several) without (or at least minimizing) distractions. While it may seem like a simple thing on paper, in today’s digital world where we are all constantly inundated with all sorts of information ranging from the world-changing to the most inane and non-sensical, operating without distractions is something that’s really easier said than done.
The problem of distraction
It’s probably best to begin a discussion of distraction by using one of the most common but dangerous tasks on earth: driving. In the United States alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cite that every day, around 9 people lose their lives and another 1,000 people get injured due to distracted driving. All it takes is a short moment, a look at an unread text message, a short reply to a business email, taking the time to dial a phone number — and someone’s life can be changed in a very significant, and oftentimes painful, way. Even experienced drivers aren’t immune to the effects of distracted driving.
And that’s the way it is for tasks at the workplace. While the effects of distraction aren’t as dramatic as that of distracted driving, operating without one’s focus on the task at hand is unhealthy, both for the worker concerned and the organization as a whole.
The main culprit for distraction is, of course, mobile phones. Writing a separate opinion piece for the New York Times, Newport says, “For many of us, their glowing screens are a ubiquitous presence, drawing us in with endless diversions, like the warm ping of social approval delivered in the forms of likes and retweets, and the algorithmically amplified outrage of the latest “breaking” news or controversy. They’re in our hands, as soon as we wake, and command our attention until the final moments before we fall asleep.” He goes on to say that Steve Jobs, the man behind the iPhone, never envisioned the device to be as engrossing and life-encompassing as it is now. Newport posits that Jobs simply wanted to “take experiences we already found important and make them better.”
FastCompany published a study that looked at task-switching and interruptions at the workplace. Among other things, it found that office workers switched tasks (which included ordinary things like answering the phone) every three minutes and five seconds on average. Furthermore, while interruptions weren’t necessarily negative, it did correlate to a higher stress level for the workers involved. In some cases as well, certain (often related) interruptions or pauses helped in task completion. But as we talked about, unrelated interruptions (often thanks to our mobile phones) were generally unhelpful, with subjects exhibiting “higher levels of stress, frustration, mental effort, feeling of time pressure and mental workload.”
More statistics: Venture capitalist Tomasz Tunguz writes that every 210 seconds, the typical American worker is interrupted from his or her work.
Distraction is a problem. It’s a major hurdle to productivity and even more so towards achieving high quality work. While smartphones — the main culprit in distractions — are useful, they are also toxic to the workflow when they’re overused. This is why it is important to realize not only the value of working through deep work, as well as developing the right mindset and habits to make it happen. Deep work is not only excellent work, but it’s efficient work and smart work as well.
>> Recommeded reading: How to make your workflow more efficient and help your business grow
The upside of deep work; how to achieve it
In his book, Newport writes that tasks done through deep work resulted in much better output than those completed with distractions and interruptions. Newport claims that “[m]ost people don’t go five or ten minutes without glancing at their phone or inbox.”
The key is to train your mind to be disciplined enough to ignore unnecessary distractions until after a task is completed. It’s about conditioning your mind to focus and devote as much brain power as possible to completing that task.
1. Schedule, schedule, schedule.
Set aside a chunk of time to complete a task. Operate on a deadline. Don’t give yourself an open-ended timeframe to work because it just encourages not only distraction, but procrastination as well. And the more you put off and then rush at the end, the more questionable the output will be. If you can avoid other tasks altogether during your “deep work” time, then so much the better.
Sometimes, imposing an even stricter personal deadline can help. Adding a stronger sense of urgency can help motivate you and sharpen your focus.
>> Recommended reading: Time Management: A Guide to Boost Productivity
2. Never tolerate distraction.
It’s tempting to just “glance at Facebook” or “check your inbox”. As we mentioned earlier, the problem with distraction is that it often is all-consuming. Giving way even just a little bit can easily spiral into time wasted doing other unimportant things, not to mention the loss of mental momentum. So never give in. Be firm in sticking to focusing on completing whatever task it is you have to do. Eliminate possible sources of distractions — if you can organize your workflow (it is possible, and you can use a software) to avoid using email for a set amount of time, that would be ideal.
>> Recommended reading: Management software to not mess up your routine
3. Warm-up for your deep work mode.
Part of eliminating distractions is by “warming-up” before your deep work time. It helps many to have some sort of process or habits that can help you get into the right frame of mind. Need to have a cup of coffee (and maybe some snacks too?) before and when you work? Then prepare a cup right before so you can just sip some nice, hot coffee every so often while you work. If you’re working in a shared space, you can inform other people that you shouldn’t be disturbed for the amount of time you allotted for your deep work.
Another way to prepare could be to meditate. Meditation helps your mind relax and metaphorically take a deep breath before you begin your deep work mode — sort of like what freedivers (someone who dives without a breathing apparatus) do before launching themselves into the water.
4. Tell yourself that being bored is okay.
A major trigger for distractions is boredom. Sometimes the brain needs to time to rest and pause for a bit — taking out your phone to do whatever doesn’t help the brain rest, it only exacerbates the stress it’s under. Boredom can help your brain recharge for a little bit and help you calm down and look at things with fresher eyes a little bit later. Downtime helps your brain be more open to seeing things from different angles and helps trigger new insights. Remember: distractions aren’t rest nor are they a break.
5. Reward yourself after.
“All work and no play make Jack a dull boy,” goes that very, very old saying; but the essence of that is true nonetheless. This basically would be the time to allow yourself to do all the distractions that you could have engaged in earlier.
6. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
Just because working with laser-sharp focus gets you great results doesn’t mean that your capacity for it is infinite. Choose to say “no” when you feel that your plate is already full. Part of deep work is knowing your brain’s limits and respecting its need to take a breather between projects and tasks.
>> Recommended reading: How to Focus on Work
Deep work with the right tools equals excellence
The impact of deep work is even magnified exponentially when you add the right productivity, workflow management, and data generation tools. One example is Runrun.it’s Smart Time Tracker. Besides being an intuitive and effective tool for timekeeping, it also helps managers, supervisors, and other decision-makers see how time is being managed in the workplace or organization. You could, for example, determine the average time a team or individual takes to complete a task. You could also generate data comparing different types of tasks in terms of how much time they take before completion.
Another essential deep work support tool would be the prioritization, which is basically the manager saing what is the more important task to be done. And you just need to drag and drop the tasks in a list, meaning that the use of this tool not only presents a minimal distraction, but also helps to fine-tune its workflow and operations. To see how Runrun.it’s tools can make an impact in your particular organization, check out the free trial here.